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Standard 6.3 on Assignment and Management of Cases and Workload

Standard 6.2 | Table of Contents | Standard 6.4


A legal aid organization should assign and manage cases and individual workloads for practitioners and other staff to promote competent, high-quality representation and legal work.


General Considerations

To ensure high-quality representation and legal work, the organization should assign cases and other legal work to those individuals who are best able to handle them. In controlling workloads and assigning cases, the organization should consider, among other things, the individual's available time, experience, and substantive expertise, as well as how assignments based on subject matter can further enhance substantive expertise in staff. The organization should manage open caseloads and other legal work assigned to individual staff practitioners to ensure that both the organization and the practitioner meet their ethical responsibilities to clients.

Given limited resources, an organization also faces the tension among its ongoing responsibilities to existing clients, the demand for service from new applicants, and the fundamental obligation to address the overall needs of the communities it serves. Some organizations or their funding sources place an emphasis on the numbers of clients served or the number of cases closed. Others emphasize results, including the number of persons who benefit from the representation or the impact of the legal work on the client communities as a whole. Each organization needs to develop a policy for legal work management that strikes an appropriate balance between resources allocated to service to individual clients and resources allocated to work designed to have a broader impact on the client communities served by the organization. The appropriate balance is a function of the organization's mission and its obligations to its funding sources, but all full-service organizations should achieve a balance that ensures the overall needs of the client communities are met, including those both of individual clients and of the communities it serves as a whole.

All the work of an organization should be undertaken with the intention of obtaining meaningful results,and the organization's policies should help it guard against the temptation to emphasize the production of case numbers. The organization's policies and systems to allocate practitioners' time and resources should also protect staff from being overwhelmed by the pressure of ongoing representation and should permit them to undertake work that will have a broader impact on client communities as a whole. In some cases, this may mean assigning a case to more than one practitioner or dividing case components among multiple practitioners.

Factors Governing Assignment of Work

The availability of adequate time to represent the client competently. Professional ethics recognize the need to ensure that practitioners devote adequate time for preparation of a case and for acquiring sufficient knowledge and skill to handle every case with professional competence. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.Ethical considerations also suggest that practitioners have a responsibility to reject cases unless they are certain they can provide service of at least the minimal level of professional responsibility.In making case assignments, the organization should, therefore, take into consideration the amount of time a practitioner has available and will need in order to handle the case competently.

The assigning attorney should determine how many cases in litigation are appropriate at any given time, considering the nature of the cases in litigation (e.g., class action and level of complexity), the extent of participation by co-counsel, and the experience of the attorney to ensure that cases in litigation progress to completion in a reasonable period of time.

Not every applicant for services will necessarily receive full representation from an organization. Many organizations offer applicants limited-scope representation in the form of advice or brief service or non-representational assistance. The organization's practitioners and other staff members who provide such limited assistance must nevertheless be able to devote adequate time to the work to ensure that the assistance is provided in a competent manner. 

The practitioner's level of experience, training, and expertise. Assignment of cases to staff practitioners and their individual caseloads should reflect the level of their training and experience. Practitioners should be encouraged to work deliberately and carefully, and the number of cases and other legal work assigned to them should allow for thorough preparation at all stages. Each case undertaken by a less experienced practitioner provides an opportunity to expand professional skills, and adequate time for development of good work habits should be factored into the workload. Wherever possible, the organization should make training opportunities available to increase its practitioners' level of practical skills and substantive expertise.As practitioners' skill levels and knowledge increase, they should be able to efficiently handle an increasing number of cases and legal work of greater complexity. Subject matter expertise should be developed whenever possible by assigning specializations to practitioners.

The status and complexity of pending cases. In managing case assignments and workload for staff practitioners, the organization should take into consideration the time required to handle each case competently. The organization should evaluate the status and complexity of its practitioners' pending cases to predict time demands of the existing caseload, including cases that are routine in nature and those that are more complex and involve full representation. A case management system and an efficient case planning process will facilitate this evaluation. 

In managing their practitioners' workloads, the organization should consider the following factors: The number and types of cases being handled by a practitioner; the number of cases being handled by a practitioner that require a substantial time commitment, including those in litigation, particularly where there is extensive discovery and/or where a trial has been set, cases on appeal and other complex cases on behalf of clients; and the predicted dates and specific deadlines for completion of each major step in more complex cases. 

Review of practitioners' workloads will identify their future time commitments and capacity to accept new assignments. It should also enable supervisors to identify patterns that require adjustments in case assignments and to evaluate the progress on open cases. A case management system and periodic case and file reviews will also help facilitate this evaluation.

Non-representational legal work and other responsibilities. Some practitioners have responsibility for training and performing other administrative and supervisory duties. Others have responsibility for the organization's nonrepresentational work, including such activities as running clinics to provide legal information, providing community legal education, or participating in special projects of benefit to client communities, such as preventive legal services, where community education and outreach is used to help people avoid falling into legal problems, or identifying legal issues sooner so that they don't become harder to resolve or cause more damage. In addition, some practitioners work on collaborative projects and planning with others in the state and regional delivery systems of which the organization is a part.All such activities may require substantial time commitments that should be taken into account when assignments are made to ensure that practitioners have adequate time for such essential activities in addition to their case work. Considerations in balancing legal work with other responsibilities should also include an examination of the effectiveness of these non-representational activities. 

The organization's capacity for support. The nature and amount of legal work a practitioner can handle effectively is impacted by the support that is available both through organizational resources and through outside sources of assistance. Where possible, organizations should have on staff substantive law specialists and litigation directors who can co-counsel and provide other assistance to improve the productivity of individual practitioners. 

Other relevant factors that affect the performance of legal work. Other factors related to the environment in which the organization and its practitioners operate will influence the amount of time required to represent each client. Factors such as time required for travel, court practices, and docket congestion may increase the time needed to conduct a case. Rural and urban practices have different logistical problems. Each organization should consider the impact of its particular environment in managing workloads. Organizations should also use technology for remote supervision of staff across offices, to enable and support more collaborative efforts between staff across offices, and to expand the geographic reach of staff.

The organization should also give appropriate consideration to such logistical factors in the design of a delivery system.Effective utilization of technology can help make efficient use of a practitioner's time.In some instances, referring cases to outside attorneys in areas that are difficult to serve because of distance can alleviate such problems, increasing the amount of staff practitioner time that is available for legal work.

Workload Management for Other Professional Staff

In addition to attorney and other authorized practitioners who represent clients, organizations employ a variety of other professional staff members whose workload is influenced by client need and whose time is devoted to working with applicants for service, clients, and members of the client communities. These staff members may include intake workers, hotline personnel, outreach workers, community educators, social workers, and others. Organizations should ensure that the workload of these staff members is assigned on the basis of appropriate criteria including their available time; level of experience, training, and expertise; the complexity of their assigned tasks; the time needed to complete administrative or other program responsibilities; and wholistic consideration of the level of clients' needs.